By Juan Gabriel Brida, Chiara Dalle Nogare and Raffaele Scuderi

Are museums successful in their mission to disseminate culture, and as such, to be means for learning in the era of iconic consumption? Our findings seem to suggest that they can be places where informal learning occurs also for leisure-motivated tourists.

Museums are institutions that preserve culture and transmit it to present and future generations. Today museum curators have developed marketing abilities for the promotion to a wider audience than the mere culture-oriented visitors. Tourists are a precious basin of candidate users for museums. Their willingness to spend in order to optimise their leisure experience can lead to the success of an attraction. Turning to museums, there are evident opportunities that derive from being considered as worthy to visit by tourists. This does not mean that they should deny their traditional mission for the sake of profits. Rather, income from admissions, bookshops and cafes could be functional to the better preservation of cultural heritage and cultural dissemination. However, whether this is actually the case or not is a matter of empirical assessment. Are museums still successful in their mission to disseminate culture, and as such, to be means for learning in the era of iconic consumption?

In the collective imagination some museums have become ‘icons’. The promotion of a limited number of popular masterpieces, or of the museum building, has brought potential visitors to identify the museum itself with these artworks. It almost seems that some visitors are in search for pop icons than for art. As a result, short-sighted policymakers can be tempted to even question the need to invest in museums. Rather, a ‘pop’ and profitable tourist-attracting leisure facility would be preferable to traditional museums. Such biased vision of a museum’s role would be confuted if some evidence against superficial fruition were provided, revealing that, after all, museums remain different from any other entertainment facility. But do tourists actually learn at the museum?

To answer to this question, first of all one should find a way to measure learning. Previous visitors’ studies reveal that length of the visit can fit with the scope: the more a visitor spends time at a museum, the more she tends to engage with exhibited items, thus generating a learning process. Actual duration of the visit, measured in hours and/or minutes, may differ from the time a tourist plans to spend at a museum in advance (willingness to stay). Suppose that a museum sells different types of tickets, each one giving the possibility to visit a different number of attractions. Then tickets can measure the advance attitude of the tourist towards time allocation, under the hypothesis that the more attractions the purchased ticket allows to visit, the more time the visitor is willing to spend. Both actual and planned duration are interesting from the point of view of our research question.

Our empirical strategy entails finding the determinants of these durations. In particular, motivation to visit may be heterogeneous across tourists. We identify two types of motivation that are related, respectively, to recreational purposes (so called light cultural consumption) and/or intellectual ones (so called hard cultural consumption). The two dimensions may coexist, as a tourist driven by intellectual motivation can decide to visit also for recreational purposes. What we are most interested in is whether a learning process takes place also in mostly leisure-motivated tourists, i.e. whether their visit is not systematically shorter, hence superficial. If this happens, one can conclude that the mission to disseminate culture is still a current major feature for museums.

The test is performed considering also other elements that may affect the length of visit, such as age, education, income, number of previous visits to the museum, presence of peers, and visit to the museum bookshop. A major control variable is cultural capital, or the individual’s ability to appreciate culture because of previous exposure, which may differ across individuals even with the same formal education level.

We surveyed the visitors of Vittoriale, the former house of the Italian poet and patriot Gabriele D’Annunzio. It is the most popular museum of the shores of lake Garda, a renowned lake destination in the North-East of Italy. The museum requires a lot in terms of cultural capital of visitors, though it is attractive enough to be easily enjoyable by anyone in its different and heterogeneous parts.

Our results give an interesting insight into the question. Those who approach the ticket counter with high intellectual hard motivation are willing to stay longer. Light consumption attitude, instead, does not lead to intention to stay neither longer nor shorter. Turning to actual stay, there is evidence that light consumption attitude is associated with longer stay. Cultural capital seems not to influence neither the willingness to stay, nor the actual stay.

What does all this mean? On the one side, as expected tourists with high hard consumption attitude tend to purchase a ticket for a full visit. This does not necessarily imply that they will stay longer as they easily understand the symbolic meaning of the exhibits. On the other side, evidence on light motivation is not associated to short visits. The evidence of longer visit duration may be due to the fact that leisure-motivated tourists are not familiar with the learning environment of a museum, and thus they need more time for the visit. That is, tourists with leisure motivation may also learn from a visit to a museum.

Some scholars have stressed that culture is not a priority for tourists. Others have found that museums are not “sufficient” attractions to generate tourism flows. Our findings seem to suggest that the value of museums goes beyond being mere iconic attractions. Also those who search for leisure seem to benefit from the particular environment a museum offers. This strengthens the value of museums, because they turn out to be successful in their mission as places where informal learning takes place even when it comes to leisure-motivated tourists.

This article is based on:

Brida, J.G., Nogare, C. and Scuderi, R. (2017) “Learning at the museum. Factors influencing visit length.” Tourism Economics. 23(2):281-294.

About the authors:

Juan Gabriel Brida is Professor at the Universidad de la República, Uruguay.

Chiara Dalle Nogare is Researcher at the University of Brescia, Italy.

Raffaele Scuderi is Associate Professor at the University of Enna ‘Kore’, Italy.

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